DATE: 2/19/2005 02:01:00 PM
I wrote this and read it at my grandfather's funeral today.
My grandfather taught us so much.
When my sister and I were little, he taught us how to paint with oils on smooth pieces of wood, instructing us on how to blend colors or make certain brush strokes, telling us that "there are no straight lines in nature," to help us paint better trees.
He taught us how to work with clay, too, and made us our own clay-working tools. He taught us how to roll pennies from the piggy bank he'd fill up every week. He taught us about the birds flying into the birdfeeder next to the family room window. He taught me about words, too, in one memorable exchange advising me to use the words "equine posterior" rather than their more common alternative.
But most of what my grandfather taught us he taught us indirectly, without speaking. Going to museums with him was often a chore for me as a kid, because he would have to stop and read every plaque next to every painting or item, every so often calling us back to something we'd tired of already to explain what he'd just learned-but mostly, just observing, drinking in everything he could see with quiet patience. He never went to college, but he taught me more about education-and the value of being a self-educator-than I could learn in any school.
My grandfather made miraculous things with lumps of clay and blocks of wood. It wasn't until much later that I realized how well-outfitted his workshop was, full of specialized tools; he'd taught my father how to be the same kind of hands-on man, and I thought all Grandpas and Dads had special lathes, band saws, table saws, jig saws, buckets of nails, vast arrays of screwdrivers and dozens of varieties of sandpaper in their basements.
One birthday, I remember, he made special. After we'd unwrapped our other toys, my sister and I were presented with identical boxes with the Hallmark logo on them. They were presented with great ceremony, and we were confused but excited.
We opened them at the same time. Inside my sister's box was a diorama of our dog Lady playing with a soccer ball out on the lawn. Her back paw was stomping tiny silk flowers into garden dirt rendered in sawdust. Mine was a black horse leaping over a stone wall-perfect down to the textured wood that formed the rock.
I asked whether the carvings had come from the Hallmark gift shop. That's how perfect they were, and my parents laughed and finally told us the story, pent up for many months, of how my grandfather had slaved over the carvings, sketching and drawing his ideas, doing research into anatomy, even having my mother bring him one of the soccer balls Lady would play with so he could get the hexagons exactly right.
People at one of the craft shops he went to for supplies told him he'd never be able to accomplish such an ambitious project. He kept going back for more paint, more glue, sharp blades, kept smiling at them when they joked about his work. Once the gifts had been presented he went back to that same shop with Polaroids.
What I learned from him then wasn't just about tenacity, about the value of finishing what you've begun; it wasn't just about the value of hard work and attention to detail, or even that greater risks lead to greater rewards. The greatest lesson was that the best work is often done simply to see the joy it gives a person you love.
And now let me tell you about my grandmother. You can't talk about my grandfather without mentioning her.
They grew up near each other, and played together with their brothers and sisters in Manchester. In high school they began dating and fell in love, and were married after graduation. And that was it for them, for the rest of their lives.
My grandmother lost her third battle with cancer in April of 1995. For the last several months of her life she lived at home in hospice care, with a hospital bed in her bedroom and medical devices throughout the house.
My grandfather watched his wife, his only love, pass away. But he eased her passing in every way he could: he learned to administer her medicines and change her linens and dressings. Time after time I saw him help her to walk, to eat, to drink, always with that same quiet presence-simply sitting with her, being with her, letting her feel his love in a way that was far deeper than words could express. He was so unafraid to be with her. There was no sight he could not bear, no task too complex or too upsetting, for him to undertake for her. He loved her and cared for her as completely as one person can for another.
In this same church almost a decade ago, Father Ferner gave a homily at her funeral about the way my grandfather had cared for my grandmother-and what a lesson it was on love.
My grandfather began his own health battles after losing my grandmother. He had a stroke in 1996, and struggled physically ever since. This past year before he passed away, he had a series of health crises. And yet his unspoken grace remained untouched. He handled the adversities of his life with humor, kindness and determination, and set an example for the rest of us to live up to.
As he used to always tell us, there are no straight lines in nature-or, as we have come to find out, in life. The best-laid plans are often thwarted by luck or circumstance. My grandmother planned to live to be 100. Before she died, at 73, we had already begun to talk about their fiftieth wedding anniversary. But it was not to be.
And so my grandfather took life's mistake the way he'd take our hands when we were clumsy in our painting, and made something beautiful out of what was. That was his gift.
Now it's time for those of us he taught so much to let him go. What brings us solace in this time of loss is that he hasn't stopped teaching-what he has taught us, about love, about determination, about hard work, about taking care of one another without fanfare but also without fail-will be with us as long as we are teaching and learning from the world.